As the familiar philosophical question goes, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” But I am proposing a Washington variation: “If a federal advisory committee uses a lot of fallen trees to create a report, do the results have any consequences?”
I raise the question because the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, appointed by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, will be completing its six months of work on Dec. 15.
As far as I can tell, the committee’s 19 members have worked long and hard to reach consensus (as well as to spell out disagreements when consensus proved elusive). But the federal government is awash in advisory committees created by presidents, agencies or Congress—so much so that in 1972 Congress passed a law to better oversee their number and costs, make their work more public and ensure each committee has a broad-based membership with sufficient expertise.
According to the General Services Administration, during Fiscal 2008 more than 63,000 members served on more than 900 advisory committees, providing recommendations on subjects such as vaccine research and safety; nuclear, biological and chemical threat reduction; veterans’ health; environmental protection, and national defense strategy.
Some committees have an impact—and they can be valuable in providing non-governmental input and developing a consensus—but many reports also just gather dust.
How then, can one determine whether LaHood’s advisory committee will have any lasting impact? What will—or can—LaHood do with its many recommendations? Because members representing so many disparate groups worked together on the committee, will they forge long-lasting relationships that lead to consensus or common-interest coalitions later, or will they just say their goodbyes and move on?
On many of the most contentious issues of the day, the committee is punting. Unable to reach consensus, many of its five subcommittees crafted proposals that recommend study or evaluation first, instead of immediate action. That is not unexpected, given the varying opinions of the committee’s airline, airport, labor, consumer, financial, aircraft manufacturing and academic members. But it does raise the question of whether consensus is even possible.
The committee is not reaching an agreement, for example, on issues such as maintenance outsourcing or protections for U.S. workers in a more globalized industry. Instead, it is likely to recommend that the Transportation Department organize a semiannual meeting of U.S. management and labor to seek consensus on these and other topics. Of course, that is no guarantee of results.
Similarly, the committee’s competitiveness and viability subcommittee could not concur on what, if anything, to do about federal aviation taxes and fees. Instead, it is pushing for a recommendation that LaHood commission an independent study to determine if the taxes and fees are fair and commensurate with the cost of services provided to the industry and travelers.
That could be useful—or the report could end up sitting in a file, since a deficit-wary Congress would have to approve reductions.
Action on many of the committee’s recommendations, in fact, would depend on Congress’s cooperation. That is far from certain and, in some cases, probably unlikely.
For example, the advisory committee might recommend restricting the communities within the continental U.S. eligible for Essential Air Service funding to the ones receiving it in 2010—and updating and narrowing EAS eligibility criteria. But Congress has been reluctant to scale back a program that benefits so many districts.
The advisory committee’s finance subcommittee is pressing for a recommendation to expand the items eligible for Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) spending to more environmental and NextGen air traffic control-related projects—and to ask the FAA to recommend whether AIP levels and the PFC cap should be raised based on the expanded eligibility.
That recommendation is somewhat surprising, given that a United Airlines representative is on the finance subcommittee. But it is doubtful that it means airlines will stop lobbying against PFC increases. Furthermore, House Democrats proposed boosting PFCs, but the Senate would offer only a much smaller increase, and the Republican House may be less inclined to hike what the airlines describe as a tax.
Perhaps the advisory committee’s best chance for impact is on air traffic control system modernization. Some recommendations would require approval from Congress. The advisory committee, for example, likely will recommend that the government design a “menu” of financial assistance—grants, loans, leases and loan guarantees—to help airlines equip their aircraft for NextGen.
But support for NextGen and acceleration of its implementation did have widespread advisory committee support. If nothing else, that should impress the importance and urgency of NextGen to LaHood, who came to his position with limited knowledge of aviation issues. Whether that amounts to much—well, we’ll see.